Mantle of the Expert was developed by Dorothy Heathcote at Newcastle University in the 1980’s.
An internationally renowned authority on drama for learning, Heathcote’s aim was to provide non-drama specialists with an approach that would support them in using drama across the curriculum. Heathcote believed drama was an underused approach outside drama studios and could be used as a powerful medium for learning across the curriculum.
Heathcote said she didn’t as much invent Mantle of the Expert as “find herself doing it.” In an interview with Sandra Hesten in 1993, Heathcote recounts working with a small group of children on a drama context about the Nativity – “…thinking about it later I thought that’s really important – they were expert kings. And then it began to dawn on me. People had to have a point of view. So when I reviewed the week I thought – the point of view of inn-keeping, the point of view of soldiers who are working for Rome, the point of view of angels, the point of view of kings. And that’s when it started coming together.”
This conversation is recorded by Hesten in her PhD thesis and is recounted by Heathcote at least two further times, once in the documentary “Pieces of Dorothy” and in an interview for the Mantle of the Expert website in 2009 – “That was the start, I then started to think, what do I call it? That’s when I got this crazy name. Which is extreme not crazy, just fanciful. I can’t find a better name.” Although Heathcote doesn’t put a date on the ‘Nativity’ context in any of these interviews, it was likely to be around the mid-1970s, since soon after this time she began talking about Mantle of the Expert as a distinct approach and incorporated it into her courses at Newcastle University.
Working with her graduate students at Newcastle University, Heathcote spent much of the late 1970’s and 80’s researching, developing, and evaluating Mantle of the Expert across a range of settings – primary and secondary schools, special schools, borstals, and adult and child mental hospitals. Her method was to teach week long sessions, planned in advance with her students, which involved them playing different roles in the classroom. Although often involving a great deal of improvisation and discussion, Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert contexts were carefully planned and often elaborately embellished with resources, props, and costumes created by the graduate students. Essentially experimental in nature, these sessions were discussed, analysed, and evaluated by Heathcote and her students, and formed the foundations for the student’s studies of the approach. In some cases these ‘experiments’ were documented.
After retiring in 1987, Heathcote continued to work on Mantle of the Expert, and used the approach in various settings and in different parts of the world.
In 1995 she co-wrote, “Drama for Learning: Dorothy Heathcote’s Mantle of the Expert Approach to Education” with Gavin Bolton.
Among her students in the early 1980’s was Luke Abbott. Abbott was a secondary school drama teacher at the time and took a year out to study with Heathcote on her graduate drama course. After completing his M.A. Abbott switched jobs and became a Local Authority advisor for Essex County Council and began working in schools – both primary and secondary – across the region.
In this new role Abbott used Mantle of the Expert with teachers in their classrooms, using Heathcote’s laboratory method. His aim was to demonstrate how Mantle of the Expert worked with students in authentic classroom settings, using few props or elaborate resources. His approach was more pragmatic than Heathcote’s and designed to be easier for teachers to implement.
In the early 2000’s Abbott organised a series of conferences, both nationally and internationally, to promote the approach and its use as a pedagogy. With Heathcote as the keynote speaker and classroom teachers running workshops, Abbott’s aim was to demystify Mantle of the Expert and turn the approach into something non-specialist drama teachers could use across the curriculum (as Heathcote had always planned).
Since this time, Abbott and others have continued to develop Mantle of the Expert, working to train teachers in the UK, New Zealand, USA, and Palestine. Since 2012 a number of schools in different regions of the UK have become ‘training schools’ for Mantle of the Expert. And the approach is included in several university teacher training courses (including Newcastle).